What Are the Most Important Documents in British History and How Can They Be Decided?

History Hit Podcast with Peter Snow

4 mins

19 Sep 2018

Image credit: Michel Wal / Commons

This article is an edited transcript of Treasures of British History with Peter Snow on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 28 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

With nearly 2,000 years of written British history to sift through, it is difficult to determine which are the most important documents, manuscripts, letters and maps – the ones that are real treasures and which help to tell the story of British history.

Indeed, the wonderful thing about British history is that you can think of 150 such documents without even scratching the surface. So where to begin if trying to compile a concise list?

What makes a document important?

It is relatively easy to choose a starting point when it comes to determining the most important documents in British history. The Vindolanda tablets (pictured above), discovered in a fort along Hadrian’s Wall, are the earliest examples of written documents ever found in Britain.

But deciding on where to go from there is a much more difficult process and throws up a lot of questions.

Is it the story behind a document that makes it important or the beauty and artistry of the document itself? 

For Peter, the most important thing to consider is the moment that a document signifes in British history. Some documents, such as Magna Carta, can’t really be read, but what they represent is nevertheless hugely significant. Of course, when it comes to something like Magna Carta, the document itself is an extraordinary and evocative thing to look at and touch.

The version of the Magna Carta confirmed by Henry III.

But what it really comes down to when considering the importance of a historical document is whether the document in question actually triggered a historically important event; to Peter, at least, the events that documents trigger are ultimately more exciting than the documents themselves. 

So then it comes down to trying to work out exactly what those big events and moments in history are. There are numerous important periods that occur during the earlier part of written British history: the eras of the Romans,  the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings.

For the Norman period, it is obvious what the most important document would be: the Domesday Book, which is the oldest surviving public record in Britain. But then later there’s also the Reformation and the society of revolution to consider.

What type of history is most important to consider?

It is also difficult deciding between literary, scientific, political and military history – which one should be given more weight when it comes to choosing the most important historical documents?

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For example, if choosing documents that represent literary history for a concise list of important historical documents, something relating to Shakespeare would likely spring to mind first. But does that suffice? What about Dickens or J. K. Rowlings?

It is also important not to pretend that all British history is wonderful. With that in mind, a list of important documents in British history should no doubt include something relating to slavery. 

The World Wars

And then, of course, there are the World Wars. You could fill up a whole boat with amazing documents, letters, poetry and maps from just World War One, let alone the Second World War. So how do you decide which are the most important?

One example of an important document from World War One would be Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s order for his men to carry on fighting with their “backs to the wall” in the spring of 1918. 

For various reasons this is very important. Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle), the great German offensive of early 1918, was probably Britain’s worst defeat on the Western Front.

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One British army had almost sort of collapsed and it briefly looked as if a great wedge would be driven in between the French and British armies – something that did in fact happen in 1940 when a pocket of British and French troops became trapped up in northern France and Belgium, while the rest of the army and the rest of the Allies were over to the Eastern Front.

Such a wedge ultimately didn’t occur in 1918 but Haig did issue this emotional call to arms to the British army which was rather remarkable.

A computer-dominated society

There have always been, and likely always will be, wars. But what there hadn’t been until very recently in British history were computers. Therefore, today, we must consider yet another genre of history when choosing documents of historical importance: computing. 

Ada Lovelace’s letter to Charles Babbage.

Indeed, a letter from a remarkable Victorian lady named Ada Lovelace to the mathematician and pioneer of computing Charles Babbage is one of the most important letters in history given what has subsequently happened and given that we now are in a computer-dominated society and that the role of computers is only going to increase.

In the letter, Lovelace outlined an example of a calculation that could be worked out by a computer without human input. It was the first time that the principle of the computer programme had been put down in writing.